A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Alberta shows that sunlight can shrink fat cells that lie just below the skin.

The findings of the study were published in the journal Scientific Reports in November and reveal that the lipid droplets found in subcutaneous fat cells become smaller and are released from the cells when exposed to blue light emitted by the sun. This means that cells retain less fat.

“When the sun’s blue light wavelengths — the light we can see with our eye — penetrate our skin and reach the fat cells just beneath, lipid droplets reduce in size and are released out of the cell. In other words, our cells don’t store as much fat,” said Peter Light, senior author of the study, professor of pharmacology and the director of the University of Alberta’s Alberta Diabetes Institute.

Light and his team were actually looking for treatments for Type 1 diabetes and were attempting to engineer fat cells to produce insulin through light exposure when they stumbled upon this discovery. “It was serendipitous,” said Light. “We noticed the reaction in human tissue cells in our negative control experiments, and since there was nothing in the literature, we knew it was important to investigate further.”

Research already shows that blue light has an effect on our body, specifically the blue light emitted from digital devices like cellphones, tablets and laptops. We’re warned against using these devices before bed because they emit the same blue light that the sun does and can signal our bodies to wake up.

“Well, perhaps that pathway — exposure to sunlight that directs our sleep-wake patterns — may also act in a sensory manner, setting the amount of fat humans burn depending on the season. You gain weight in the winter, and then burn it off in the summer,” says Light.

This could explain why we tend to gain more weight in winter months, when the days are shorter and our exposure to sunshine is lower.

This doesn’t mean that simply spending more time in the sun should be considered an effective weight loss technique. As Light cautions, “The study we just published, actually, was more of an observation of the effect…. Now, we need to know what the underlying mechanism is.” More research needs to be done to determine the intensity and duration of light exposure required to see useful results.

The researchers hope their findings could lead to pharmacological or light-based treatments for obesity and other weight-related health issues in the future.

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